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SUPREME COURT OF DELAWARE

JOHN DOE NO. 1, )


) No. 266, 2005
Defendant Below-Appellant, )
) Court Below -
v. ) Superior Court of the
) State of Delaware
PATRICK CAHILL and JULIA CAHILL, ) in and for
) New Castle County
Plaintiffs Below-Appellees. ) C.A. No. 04C-011-022

BRIEF FOR PUBLIC CITIZEN, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION,


ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION,
AND AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF DELAWARE
AS AMICI CURIAE URGING REVERSAL

Paul Alan Levy


Allison M. Zieve

Public Citizen Litigation Group


1600 - 20th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 588-1000

ROSENTHAL MONHAIT GROSS & GODDESS, P.A.

Norman M. Monhait (DSBA No. 1040)


919 Market Street, Suite 1401
Citizens Bank Center
P.O. Box 1070
Wilmington, Delaware 19899-1070
(302) 656-4433

Lawrence A. Hamermesh (DSBA No. 474)

Widener University School of Law


4601 Concord Pike
Wilmington, DE 19803
(302) 477-2132

Attorneys for Amici Curiae


August 1, 2005
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Statement of the Case . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

Summary of Argument . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

ARGUMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

I. The First Amendment Protection Against Compelled


Identification of Anonymous Speakers. . . . . . . . . . . 9

II. Applying the Qualified Privilege for Anonymous Speech to


Develop a Standard for the Identification of John Doe
Defendants. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

III Procedures That Courts Should Follow In Deciding Whether


to Compel Identification of John Doe Defendants in
Particular Cases. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

A. Give Notice of the Threat to Anonymity and an


Opportunity to Defend Against the Threat. . . 19

B. Require Specificity Concerning the Statements. 20

C. Review the Facial Validity of the Claims


After the Statements Are Specified. . . . . . 21

D. Require an Evidentiary Basis for the Claims. . 23

E. Balance the Equities. . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

IV. Dendrite’s Flexible Standard Discourages Frivolous


Lawsuits While Allowing Genuine Cases to Proceed. . . . 33

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
STATEMENT OF THE CASE

The Internet is a democratic institution in the fullest sense.

It is the modern equivalent of Speakers' Corner in England's Hyde

Park, where ordinary people may voice their opinions, however

silly, profane, or brilliant, to all who choose to listen. As the

Supreme Court explained in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union,

521 U.S. 844, 853, 870 (1997),

From a publisher’s standpoint, [the Internet] constitutes


a vast platform from which to address and hear from a
world-wide audience of millions of readers, viewers,
researchers and buyers. . . . Through the use of chat
rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town
crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could
from any soapbox. Through the use of web pages, . . .
the same individual can become a pamphleteer.

Full First Amendment protection applies to free speech on the

Internet. Id.

Knowing that people have personal interests in news develop-

ments, and that people love to share their opinions with anyone who

will listen, many companies have organized outlets for the

expression of citizen opinions. Yahoo! and Raging Bull, for

example, have separate “message boards” for each publicly traded

company. Many newspapers provide “blogs” for citizens to discuss

particular topics, or the affairs of particular communities.

Typically, these outlets are electronic bulletin board systems

where individuals can discuss major companies and public figures at

no cost by posting comments for others to read and discuss.

The individuals who post messages there generally do so under

pseudonyms – similar to the system of truck drivers using “handles”

-3-
when they speak on their CB’s. Nothing prevents an individual from

using a real name, but the blog at issue here is typical in that

most people choose nicknames. These often colorful monikers

protect the writer’s identity from those who express disagreement,

and encourage uninhibited exchange of ideas and opinions. Such

exchanges can be very heated and, as seen from the messages and

responses on the blog at issue in this case, App. 22-40, they are

sometimes filled with invective and insult. Most, if not every-

thing, said on blogs is taken with a grain of salt.

There is one aspect of blogs like the Smyrna/Clayton Issues

Blog that makes them very different from almost any other form of

published expression: Because any member of the public can express

a point of view, a person who disagrees for any reason with

something that is said – including the belief that a statement

contains false or misleading information – can respond immediately

at no cost. That response will have the same prominence as the

offending message. Such a blog is thus unlike a newspaper, which

cannot be required to print a response to its criticisms. Miami

Herald Pub. Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974). The reply can

provide facts or opinions to controvert the criticism and persuade

the audience that the critics are wrong. Indeed, the blog excerpt

in the record makes clear that Cahill was an active participant in

the blog. App. 27, 29. And, because many people regularly revisit

the blog, the response is likely to be seen by much the same

audience as those who saw the original criticism. In this way, the

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Internet provides the ideal proving ground for the proposition that

the marketplace of ideas, rather than the courtroom, provides the

best forum for the resolution of disagreements about the truth of

disputed propositions of fact and opinion.

The Smyrna/Clayton Issues Blog is devoted to discussion of

local affairs. In September 2004, appellant “Proud Citizen” posted

two messages on the blog that unfavorably compared Patrick Cahill,

a member of the Smyrna Town Council, with Smyrna Mayor Mark

Shaeffer. The first message claimed that Cahill had lesser

leadership skills, energy and enthusiasm, referring to Cahill’s

“character flaws,” “mental deterioration,” and “failed leadership.”

The second began, “Gahill [sic] is . . . paranoid.” App. 26, 28.

On November 2, Cahill and his wife sued four anonymous posters

to the blog. Plaintiffs named Proud Citizen as Doe No. 1 and

alleged that his name-calling had accused Cahill of suffering from

“mental defects and diseases,” and that the misspelling of his name

accused him of “engaging in extramarital, homosexual affairs.”

Without notice to the posters, the Cahills sought leave of

Court to subpoena the Internet Protocol (“IP”) numbers that the

four posters had used when posting their messages. After learning

that all posters used IP numbers belonging to Comcast, a provider

of cable Internet access, plaintiffs subpoenaed identifying

information from Comcast which, in turn, pursuant to 47 U.S.C. §

551, notified the four Doe’s of the subpoena.

Proud Citizen (“Doe 1”) moved to quash the subpoena arguing

-5-
that disclosure would violate his First Amendment right to

criticize a public official anonymously. Dendrite v. Doe, 775 A.2d

756 (N.J. Super. 2000). Doe 1 argued that prevailing standards

governing the enforcement of such subpoenas required balancing the

right of free speech against plaintiffs’ interest in identifying

the person who must be served to prosecute the action, and allow

enforcement only if plaintiffs identify the defamatory words, show

that they are actionable, and, at a minimum, establish a prima

facie case on the elements of his claim. Plaintiffs argued that

this standard was too exacting, and proposed a standard allowing

access if plaintiffs sued in “good faith.”

The trial court denied the motion, expressing concern that

Dendrite effectively requires a plaintiff to present the degree of

evidence that would be needed to win the case, which would be

unreasonable at the initial stages of the case. Opin. 16-17. Good

faith is to be determined, the court decided, solely by considering

the complaint and the briefs. Id. 19-20. The good faith standard

was met, the court decided, because Cahill is a married man, and

hence the misspelling of his name as “Gahill” might be interpreted

as alleging that he engaged in an extra-marital, same-sex affair,

and because, as a public official, an imputation of diminished

mental capacity might cause harm to his reputation. Id. 20-21.

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SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

1. The Internet has the potential to be an equalizing force

within our democracy, giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to

communicate, at minimal cost, their views on issues of public

concern to all who will listen, and full First Amendment protection

applies to communications on the Internet. Longstanding precedent

also recognizes that speakers have a First Amendment right to

communicate anonymously, so long as they do not violate the law in

doing so. Thus, when a complaint is brought against an anonymous

speaker, the courts must balance the right to obtain redress from

the perpetrators of civil wrongs, against the right of those who

have done no wrong to remain anonymous. In cases such as this one,

these rights come into conflict when a plaintiff seeks an order

compelling disclosure of a defendant’s identity, which, if

successful, would irreparably destroy the defendant’s First

Amendment right to remain anonymous.

2. Suits against anonymous speakers are unlike most tort

cases, where identifying an unknown defendant at the outset of the

case is merely the first step toward establishing liability for

damages. In a suit against an anonymous speaker, identifying the

speaker gives an important measure of relief to the plaintiff

because it enables him to employ extra-judicial self-help measures

to counteract both the speech and the speaker, and creates a

substantial risk of harm to the speaker, who not only loses the

right to anonymous speech but is exposed to the plaintiff’s efforts

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to restrain or oppose his speech. For example, an employer might

discharge a whistleblower, and a public official might use his

powers to retaliate against the speaker, or might use knowledge of

the critic’s identity in the political arena. Similar cases across

the country, and advice openly given by lawyers to potential

clients, demonstrate that access to identifying information to

enable extrajudicial action may be the only reason for many such

lawsuits. Our legal system ordinarily does not give substantial

relief of this sort, even on a preliminary basis, absent proof that

the relief is justified because success is likely and the balance

of hardships favors the relief.

3. Whatever the reason for speaking anonymously, a rule that

makes it too easy to remove the cloak of anonymity will deprive the

marketplace of ideas of valuable contributions. For example, a

“good faith” standard, as adopted and applied by the court below,

may not even require plaintiff to meet the standards of Rule 11 and

thus avoid the imposition of sanctions. The First Amendment right

to speak anonymously deserves more protection than that.

4. Some individuals may speak anonymously because they fear

the entirely proper consequences of improper speech, such as the

prospect of substantial damages liability if they tell lies about

somebody they do not like for the purpose of damaging her reputa-

tion. The challenge for the courts is to develop a test for the

identification of anonymous speakers which makes it neither too

easy for vicious defamers to hide behind pseudonyms, nor too easy

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for a big company or a public official to unmask critics simply by

filing a complaint that manages to state a claim for relief under

some tort or contract theory.

5. This Court should reject the minimal “good faith” standard

adopted below, and expand the developing consensus among those

courts that have considered this question, by relying on the

general rule that only a compelling interest is sufficient to

warrant infringement of free speech rights. Specifically, when

faced with a demand for discovery to identify an anonymous speaker,

a court should (1) provide notice to the potential defendant and an

opportunity to defend his anonymity; (2) require the plaintiff to

specify the statements that allegedly violate its rights; (3)

review the complaint to ensure that it states a cause of action

based on each statement and against each defendant; (4) require the

plaintiff to produce evidence supporting each element of its

claims, and (5) balance the equities, weighing the potential harm

to the plaintiff from being unable to proceed against the harm to

the defendant from losing his right to remain anonymous, in light

of the strength of the plaintiff’s evidence of wrongdoing. The

court can thus ensure that a plaintiff does not obtain an important

form of relief – identifying its anonymous critics – and that the

defendant is not denied important First Amendment rights, unless

the plaintiff has a realistic chance of success on the merits.

6. Meeting these criteria can require time and effort on a

plaintiff’s part and may delay his quest for redress. However,

-9-
everything that the plaintiff must do to meet this test, it must

also do to prevail on the merits in a case. So long as the test

does not demand more information than plaintiffs will be reasonably

able to provide shortly after they file the complaint, the standard

does not unfairly prevent the plaintiff with a legitimate grievance

from achieving redress against an anonymous speaker.

7. Moreover, most cases of this kind will primarily involve

demands for monetary relief, except in the rare case where the

plaintiff has a sound argument for being granted a preliminary

injunction, notwithstanding the strong rule against prior re-

straints of speech. Accordingly, although applying this standard

may delay service of the complaint, it will not, ordinarily,

prejudice the plaintiff. On the other hand, the fact that after

the defendant is identified, his right to speak anonymously has

been irretrievably lost, counsels in favor of caution, and hence in

favor of allowing sufficient time for the defendant to respond and

requiring a sufficient showing on the part of the plaintiff.

-10-
ARGUMENT

I. The First Amendment Protection Against Compelled Identi-


fication of Anonymous Speakers.

It is well-established that the First Amendment protects the

right to speak anonymously. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc. of New

York v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 166-167 (2002); Buckley

v. American Constitutional Law Found., 525 U.S. 182, 199-200

(1999); McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm., 514 U.S. 334 (1995);

Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960). These cases have

celebrated the important role played by anonymous or pseudonymous

writings over the course of history, from the literary efforts of

Shakespeare and Mark Twain to the authors of the Federalist Papers.

As the Supreme Court said in McIntyre:

[A]n author is generally free to decide whether or not to


disclose his or her true identity. The decision in favor
of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or
official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism,
or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s
privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be,
. . . the interest in having anonymous works enter the
marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public
interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry.
Accordingly, an author’s decision to remain anonymous,
like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to
the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom
of speech protected by the First Amendment.
* * *
Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is
not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable
tradition of advocacy and of dissent.

514 U.S. at 341-342, 356.

These rights are fully applicable to speech on the Internet.

The Supreme Court has treated the Internet as a forum of preeminent

importance because it places in the hands of any individual who

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wants to express his views the opportunity to reach other members

of the public who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away, at

virtually no cost. Accordingly, First Amendment rights fully apply

to communications over the Internet. Reno v. American Civil

Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997). Several courts specifically

uphold the right to communicate anonymously online. See cases

cited by appellant at 10-11; see also ApolloMEDIA Corp. v. Reno,

119 S.Ct. 1450 (1999), aff’g 19 F. Supp.2d 1081 (C.D. Cal. 1998);

Global Telemedia v. Does, 132 F. Supp.2d 1261 (C.D. Cal. 2001).

Internet speakers speak anonymously for various reasons. They

may wish to avoid having their views stereotyped according to their

racial, ethnic or class characteristics, or according to their

gender. They may be associated with an organization but want to

express an opinion of their own, without running the risk that,

despite the standard disclaimer against attribution of opinions to

the group, readers will assume that the group feels the same way.

They may be discussing embarrassing subjects and may want to say or

imply things about themselves that they are unwilling to disclose

otherwise. And they may wish to say things that might make other

people angry and stir a desire for retaliation. Whatever the reason

for wanting to speak anonymously, a rule that makes it too easy to

remove the cloak of anonymity will deprive the marketplace of ideas

of valuable contributions.

Moreover, at the same time that the Internet gives individuals

the opportunity to speak anonymously, it creates an unparalleled

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capacity to monitor every speaker and discover his or her identity.

Speakers who send e-mail or visit a website leave behind electronic

footprints that can, if saved by the recipient, provide the

beginning of a path that can be followed back to the original

senders. Thus, anybody with enough time, resources and interest,

if coupled with the power to compel the disclosure of the informa-

tion, can learn who is saying what to whom.

A court order, even if granted for a private party, is state

action and hence subject to constitutional limitations. New York

Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 265 (1964); Shelley v.

Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948). A court order to compel production of

individuals’ identities in a situation that threaten the exercise

of fundamental rights “is subject to the closest scrutiny.” NAACP

v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 461 (1958); Bates v City of Little Rock,

361 U.S. 516, 524 (1960). Abridgement of the rights to speech and

press, “even though unintended, may inevitably follow from varied

forms of governmental action,” such as compelling the production of

names. NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. at 461. Rights may also be

curtailed by means of private retribution following court-ordered

disclosures. Id. at 462-463; Bates, 361 U.S. at 524.

Due process requires the showing of a “subordinating interest

which is compelling” where, as here, compelled disclosure threatens

a significant impairment of fundamental rights. Bates, 361 U.S. at

524; NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. at 463. Because compelled

identification trenches on the First Amendment right of speakers to

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remain anonymous, justification for incursions on that right

requires proof of a compelling interest, and beyond that, the

restriction must be narrowly tailored to serve that interest.

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm., 514 U.S. 334, 347 (1995).

In a closely analogous area of law, courts have evolved a

standard for the compelled disclosure of the sources of libelous

speech, recognizing a qualified privilege against disclosure of

otherwise anonymous sources. In such cases, many courts apply a

three-part test, under which the person seeking to identify the

anonymous speaker has the burden of showing that (1) the issue on

which the material is sought is not just relevant to the action,

but goes to the heart of the plaintiff’s case; (2) disclosure of

the source is “necessary” to prove the issue because the party

seeking disclosure is likely to prevail on all the other issues in

the case, and (3) the discovering party has exhausted all other

means of proving this part of its case. United States v. Driden,

633 F.2d 346, 358 (3d Cir. 1980); Carey v. Hume, 492 F.2d 631 (D.C.

Cir. 1974); Cervantes v. Time, 464 F.2d 986 (8th Cir. 1972); Baker

v. F&F Investment, 470 F.2d 778, 783 (2d Cir. 1972); Fuester v.

Conrail, 1994 WL 555526 (Del. Super., Sept. 16 1994).

As one court stated in refusing to enforce a subpoena to

identify anonymous Internet speakers whose identity was allegedly

relevant to defense against a shareholder derivative action, “If

Internet users could be stripped of that anonymity by a civil

subpoena enforced under the liberal rules of civil discovery, this

-14-
would have a significant chilling effect on Internet communications

and thus on basic First Amendment rights.” Doe v. 2theMart.com,

140 F. Supp.2d 1088, 1093 (W.D. Wash. 2001).

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II. Applying the Qualified Privilege for Anonymous Speech to
Develop a Standard for the Identification of John Doe
Defendants.

Several courts have enunciated standards to govern identifica-

tion of anonymous Internet speakers. In the leading case, a

company sued four individuals who had criticized it on a Yahoo!

bulletin board. Dendrite v. Doe, 342 N.J. Super. 134, 775 A.2d 756

(App. Div. 2001). The court set out a five-part standard for cases

involving subpoenas to identify anonymous Internet speakers, which

amici urge the Court to apply in this case:

We offer the following guidelines to trial courts when


faced with an application by a plaintiff for expedited
discovery seeking an order compelling an ISP to honor a
subpoena and disclose the identity of anonymous Internet
posters who are sued for allegedly violating the rights
of individuals, corporations or businesses. The trial
court must consider and decide those applications by
striking a balance between the well-established First
Amendment right to speak anonymously, and the right of
the plaintiff to protect its proprietary interests and
reputation through the assertion of recognizable claims
based on the actionable conduct of the anonymous,
fictitiously-named defendants.

We hold that when such an application is made, the trial


court should first require the plaintiff to undertake
efforts to notify the anonymous posters that they are the
subject of a subpoena or application for an order of
disclosure, and withhold action to afford the ficti-
tiously-named defendants a reasonable opportunity to file
and serve opposition to the application. These notifica-
tion efforts should include posting a message of notifi-
cation of the identity discovery request to the anonymous
user on the ISP's pertinent message board.

The court shall also require the plaintiff to identify


and set forth the exact statements purportedly made by
each anonymous poster that plaintiff alleges constitutes
actionable speech.

The complaint and all information provided to the court


should be carefully reviewed to determine whether

-16-
plaintiff has set forth a prima facie cause of action
against the fictitiously-named anonymous defendants. In
addition to establishing that its action can withstand a
motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which
relief can be granted pursuant to R. 4:6- 2(f), the
plaintiff must produce sufficient evidence supporting
each element of its cause of action, on a prima facie
basis, prior to a court ordering the disclosure of the
identity of the unnamed defendant.

Finally, assuming the court concludes that the plaintiff


has presented a prima facie cause of action, the court
must balance the defendant's First Amendment right of
anonymous free speech against the strength of the prima
facie case presented and the necessity for the disclosure
of the anonymous defendant's identity to allow the
plaintiff to properly proceed.

342 N.J. Super. at 141-142, 775 A.2d at 760-761.

Similarly, in Melvin v. Doe, 49 Pa. D&C 4th 449 (2000), rev’d

on other grounds, 575 Pa. 264, 836 A.2d 42 (2003), the court

ordered disclosure only after finding genuine issues of material

fact requiring trial. In reversing the order of disclosure, the

Pennsylvania Supreme Court expressly recognized the right to speak

anonymously and sent the case back for a determination of whether,

under Pennsylvania libel law, actual economic harm must be proved

as an element of the cause of action (836 A.2d at 50):

court-ordered disclosure of Appellants' identities


presents a significant possibility of trespass upon their
First Amendment rights. There is no question that
generally, the constitutional right to anonymous free
speech is a right deeply rooted in public policy that
goes beyond this particular litigation, and that it falls
within the class of rights that are too important to be
denied review. Finally, it is clear that once Appellants'
identities are disclosed, their First Amendment claim is
irreparably lost as there are no means by which to later
cure such disclosure.

Several federal trial courts follow the same approach,

-17-
considering evidence supporting plaintiff’s claim before giving

discovery to identify an anonymous defendant. In Equidyne Corp. v.

Does 1-21, No. 02-430-JJF (D. Del., Nov. 1, 2002) at 6-7 (Addendum

(“Add.”) 9-10), Judge Farnan followed Dendrite to the extent of

considering evidence that the defendant had used the Internet to

solicit proxies in support of candidates for director, that this

defendant had not described his own holdings, and that no proxy

statement had been filed for those candidates, thus showing a

potential violation of the proxy rules. (In a later opinion, the

Court also held that no showing of harm was required for that cause

of action. (D. Del., Feb 13, 2005), at 2, Add. 12). In Sony Music

Entertainment v. Does 1-40, 326 F. Supp.2d 556 (S.D.N.Y. 2004), the

Court weighed the limited First Amendment interests of alleged

file-sharers but upheld discovery to identify them after satisfying

itself that plaintiffs had produced evidence showing a prima facie

case that hundreds of songs that defendants had posted online were

copyrighted and had been infringed. And in Alvis Coatings v. Doe,

2004 WL 2904405 (W.D.N.C., Dec. 2, 2004), the court ordered the

identification of a commercial competitor of the plaintiff who

posted defamatory comments on bulletin boards only after consider-

ing a detailed affidavit (Add. 28-30) that explained the ways in

which certain comments were false.

A similar approach was used in Columbia Insurance Co. v.

Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573 (N.D. Cal. 1999), where the plaintiff

sued several defendants for registering Internet domain names that

-18-
used the plaintiff’s trademark. The court expressed concern about

the possible chilling effect of such discovery (id. at 578):

People are permitted to interact pseudonymously and


anonymously with each other so long as those acts are not
in violation of the law. This ability to speak one’s
mind without the burden of the other party knowing all
the facts about one’s identity can foster open communica-
tion and robust debate . . . . People who have committed
no wrong should be able to participate online without
fear that someone who wishes to harass or embarrass them
can file a frivolous lawsuit and thereby gain the power
of the court’s order to discover their identities.

Accordingly, the court required plaintiff to make a good faith

effort to communicate with the anonymous defendants and give them

notice that suit had been filed against them, thus providing them

an opportunity to defend their anonymity. The court also compelled

the plaintiff to demonstrate that it had viable claims against the

defendants. Id. at 579. This demonstration included a review of

the evidence in support of the plaintiff’s trademark claims against

the anonymous defendants. Id. at 580.1

Here, the court below relied on a Virginia trial court

decision as supporting a far weaker standard, whereby plaintiff

need only show that it is pursuing a claim in good faith, Opin. at

1
A Connecticut court applied a balancing test to decide
whether it was appropriate to compel Time-Warner Cable Co. to
identify one of its subscribers, who was accused of defaming the
plaintiff. La Societe Metro Cash & Carry France v. Time Warner
Cable, 2003 WL 22962857, 36 Conn. L. Rptr. 170 (Conn. Super. 2003).
The Court took testimony from one of the plaintiff’s officials, who
attested both to the falsity of the defendant’s communication and
to the damage that the communication has caused, and decided that
the evidence was sufficient to establish “probable cause that it
has suffered damages as the result of the tortious acts of
defendant Doe,” at *7, and therefore ordered identification.

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17-18, but the court failed to note several features of that case.

In that case, a company, having first sued a Doe in Indiana and

obtained from that court a commission to seek discovery in another

state, subpoenaed AOL in Virginia to identify an AOL subscriber.

The subscriber did not oppose enforcement, but AOL argued for a

standard that would protect its subscribers against needless

piercing of protected anonymity. The court noted that consider-

ations of comity required it to respect the Indiana court’s ruling

that discovery was appropriate. Even then, the court articulated

the following standard for disclosure:

[The Court must be] satisfied by the pleadings or


evidence supplied . . . that the party requesting the
subpoena has a legitimate, good faith basis to contend
that it may be the victim of conduct actionable in the
jurisdiction where suit was filed, and . . . the subpoe-
naed identity information [must be] centrally needed to
advance that claim.

In re Subpoena to AOL, 52 Va. Cir. 26, 34, 2000 WL


1210372 (Va. Cir. Fairfax Cty. 2000), rev’d on other
grounds sub nom., AOL v. Anonymous Publicly Traded Co.,
261 Va. 350, 542 S.E.2d 377 (2001) (emphasis added).

Although each of these cases sets out a slightly different

test, each court weighed plaintiff’s interest identifying the

people who allegedly violated its rights against the interests

implicated by the potential violation of the First Amendment right

to anonymity, thus ensuring that First Amendment rights are not

trammeled unnecessarily. Put another way, the qualified privilege

to speak anonymously requires courts to review a plaintiff’s claims

and the evidence supporting them to ensure that the plaintiff has

a valid reason for piercing the speaker’s anonymity.

-20-
III Procedures That Courts Should Follow In Deciding Whether
to Compel Identification of John Doe Defendants in
Particular Cases.

A. Give Notice of the Threat to Anonymity and an


Opportunity to Defend Against the Threat.

First, when asked to subpoena anonymous Internet speakers, a

court shuold is ensure that the plaintiff has undertaken the best

efforts available to notify the speakers that they are the subject

of a subpoena, and then withhold any action for a reasonable period

of time until the defendants have had the time to retain counsel.

Seescandy, 185 F.R.D. at 579. Thus, in Dendrite, the court

required the plaintiff to post on the message board a notice of its

application for discovery. The notice identified the four screen

names that were sought to be identified, and gave information about

the local bar referral service so that the individuals concerned

could retain counsel to voice their objections, if any. (The

posted Order to Show Cause is appended as Add. 44-45). The

Appellate Division specifically approved of this requirement and

ordered trial judges in New Jersey to follow it. 342 N.J. Super.

at 141, 775 A.2d at 760. Because, in a suit over anonymous speech,

preliminary injunctive relief would ordinarily be barred by the

rule against prior restraints, and the only relief sought is

damages, there is rarely any reason for expedition that counsels

against requiring notice and opportunity to object. A concomitant

of requiring notice to the anonymous defendant and identifying the

specific statements alleged to be actionable is allowing enough

time to respond to the allegedly unlawful statements – ordinarily,

-21-
at least as much time as would be allowed after receipt of a motion

for summary judgment.

In this case, it would have been simple for plaintiffs to have

posted notice of their motion on the blog itself. Although such

transmission is not tantamount to service of a summons, it would

have represented the Cahills’ best efforts to provide fair notice

to the Does. In future cases, amici suggest that courts should not

entertain motions to identify anonymous Internet speakers until

they are assured that comparable efforts have been made.

To be sure, the Doe defendants eventually received notice that

their anonymity was threatened because all of them connected to the

Internet through Comcast, which, as a cable Internet provider, was

required by the federal Cable Act to provide notice of the

subpoena. Many major Internet service providers (“ISP”) who

provide access by dial-up, broadband or satellite do likewise, and

in fact the Cyberslapp Coalition of which amici are a part have

proposed a model notification policy for ISP’s to follow. (This

policy is posted on line at www.cyberslapp.org/ISPLetter.cfm.)

However, some ISP’s still do not provide notice to their customers

before they respond to subpoenas. Accordingly, an order such as

the one that was entered and affirmed in Dendrite provides an

important procedural protection for the right to speak anonymously.

B. Require Specificity Concerning the Statements.

The qualified privilege to speak anonymously requires a court

to review a plaintiff’s claims to ensure that the plaintiff does,

-22-
in fact, have a valid reason for piercing each speaker’s anonymity.

Thus, courts should require plaintiffs to quote the exact state-

ments by each anonymous speaker that is alleged to have violated

its rights. It is startling how often plaintiffs in these sorts of

cases do not bother to do this. Instead, they may quote messages

by a few individuals, and then demand production of a larger number

of identities.

Plaintiffs here quoted the two posts on which they sued Doe 1.

Although the use of ellipses at the end of the quotation from the

second post is troubling, Doe 1 placed the entire post in the

record, along with other comments on the blog. In future cases,

however, the entire posting should be set forth for review.

C. Review the Facial Validity of the Claims


After the Statements Are Specified.

Third, the court should review each statement to determine

whether it is facially actionable. In this regard, plaintiffs’

libel claims appear highly dubious. First, although plaintiff

Julia Cahill is no doubt offended by the criticisms of her husband,

none of the statements by Doe 1 are “of and concerning” her, and it

is a cardinal principle of libel law that a plaintiff may only sue

over factual statements that pertain directly to the plaintiff.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564, adopted by Q-Tone Broadcasting

Co. v. Musicradio of Maryland, 1994 WL 555391 (Del. Super., Aug.

22, 1994). Indeed, the First Amendment requires that an allegedly

defamatory statement be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. New

York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 288 (1964).

-23-
Second, the statements that plaintiff Patrick Cahill alleges

as defamatory are a thin reed with which to support a libel action.

Expressions of opinion are not actionable for defamation, and the

issue of whether a statement is opinion or fact is one for the

Court to resolve as a matter of law. Riley v. Moyed, 529 A.2d 248,

251 & n.2 (Del. 1987). Moreover, just as readers will anticipate

that newspaper commentators “will make strong statements, sometimes

phrased in a polemical manner that would hardly be considered

balanced or fair elsewhere as a news reporting column,” id. at 252,

so, too, statements on a message board are typically exaggerated

and most readers will take them with a grain of salt rather than

anticipating complete objectivity. The very context thus militates

against a finding of defamatory meaning.

Similarly, the language used in the postings is suggestive of

opinion rather than statements of fact. In common discourse, vague

references to a public figure as being “paranoid” and showing

“mental deterioration” are non-verifiable statements of opinion and

sarcasm, rather than suggestions that the official suffers from a

clinical defect. Courts have "refused to hold defamatory on its

face or defamatory at all an imputation of mental disorder which is

made in an oblique or hyperbolic manner.” Bratt v. IBM Corp., 392

Mass. 508, 516, 467 N.E.2d 126, 133 (Mass. 1984).

Moreover, putting aside the substantial debate about whether

labeling an individual as a gay or lesbian is defamatory, Cahill’s

specific claim, that the lone misspelling of his name as “Gahill”

-24-
constitutes an accusation of engaging in a same-sex, extra-marital

affair, is nonsensical. Plaintiffs have set forth no reason why

the reference should be taken as a sly characterization of sexual

orientation rather than a typographical error stemming from the

proximity of the “g” and “c” keys on a computer keyboard, or some

other reason for substituting the initial letter of Cahill’s name.

See Amrak Prod's v. Morton, 410 F.3d 69, 71 (1st Cir. 2005)

(upholding district court ruling that refused to find photo caption

to be a defamatory statement that plaintiff is gay because Court

would have to "pile inference upon innuendo").

Finally, the fact that this case involves statements about an

elected public official militate against a finding of defamatory

reading. In Riley, this Court warned against expansive application

of libel law to cases brought by public officials:

A contrary ruling would inhibit a significant segment of


discourse vital in a democracy. [E]ven the most careless
readers must have perceived that the [words were] no more
than rhetorical hyperbole. . . . The language used must
consider[] the broader social context in which the column
appeared, i.e., that it addressed a current topic of
ongoing public debate . . . [L]anguage which might
otherwise be considered statements of fact have here
assumed the character of statements of opinion.

529 A.2d at 252-253.

D. Require an Evidentiary Basis for the Claims.

Fourth, no person should be subjected to compulsory identifi-

cation through a court’s subpoena power unless the plaintiff

produces sufficient evidence supporting each element of the cause

of action to show a realistic chance of winning a lawsuit against

-25-
each Doe defendant. The requirement of presenting evidence

prevents a plaintiff from being able to identify critics simply by

filing a facially adequate complaint. In this regard, plaintiffs

often claim that they need identification of defendants simply to

proceed with the case. However, the Court should recognize that

identification of an otherwise anonymous speaker is itself a major

form of relief in cases like this, and relief is generally not

awarded to a plaintiff absent evidence in support of the claims.

Withholding relief until evidence is produced is particularly

appropriate where the relief may undermine, and thus violate, the

defendant’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously.

Indeed, in a number of cases, plaintiffs have succeeded in

identifying their critics and then sought no further relief from

the court. Thompson, On the Net, in the Dark, California Law Week,

Volume 1, No. 9, at 16, 18 (1999). Some lawyers who bring cases

like this one have publicly stated that the mere identification of

their clients’ anonymous critics may be all they desire to achieve

in court. E.g., http://www.zwire.com/site/news. cfm?newsid=1098427

&BRD=1769&PAG=461&dept_id=74969&rfi=8. One leading advocate of

discovery procedures to identify anonymous critics urges corporate

executives to use discovery first, and to decide whether to pursue

a libel case only after the critics have been identified and

contacted privately. Fischman, Your Corporate Reputation Online;

Fischman, Protecting the Value of Your Goodwill from Online Assault

(Add. 54-59). Lawyers who represent plaintiffs in these cases have

-26-
also urged companies to bring suit, even if they do not intend to

pursue the action to a conclusion, because “[t]he mere filing of

the John Doe action will probably slow the postings.” Eisenhofer

and Liebesman, Caught by the Net, 10 Business Law Today No. 1

(Sept./Oct. 2000), at 46. These lawyers similarly suggest that

clients decide whether to pursue a defamation action only after

finding out who the defendant is. Id. When respected members of

the Bar are seeking clients by promoting the benefits that can be

obtained from subpoenas without winning the lawsuit, the dangers

posed by a mere “good faith” standard when libel suits are brought

pro se are even more troubling.

As Eisenhofer and Liebesman acknowledge, the mere pendency of

a subpoena may have the effect of deterring other members of the

public from discussing the public official who has filed the

action. However, imposing a requirement that proof of wrongdoing

be presented to obtain the names of the anonymous critics may well

persuade plaintiffs that such subpoenas are not worth pursuing

unless they are prepared to pursue litigation.

To address this potential abuse, the Court should borrow by

analogy the holdings of cases involving the disclosure of anonymous

sources that require a party seeking discovery of information

protected by the First Amendment to show reason to believe that the

information sought will, in fact, help its case. In re Petroleum

Prod. Antitrust Litig., 680 F.2d 5, 6-9 (2d Cir. 1982); Richards

of Rockford v. PGE, 71 F.R.D. 388, 390-391 (N.D. Cal. 1976). Cf.

-27-
Schultz v. Reader's Digest, 468 F. Supp. 551, 566-567 (E.D. Mich.

1979). In effect, the plaintiff should be required to meet a

summary judgment standard of creating genuine issues of material

fact on all issues in the case, including issues on which it needs

to identify the anonymous speakers, before it gets the opportunity

to obtain their identities. Cervantes v. Time, 464 F.2d 986, 993-

994 (8th Cir. 1972). “Mere speculation and conjecture about the

fruits of such examination will not suffice.” Id. at 994.

If the plaintiff cannot come forward with concrete evidence

sufficient to prevail on all elements of its case on subjects that

are based on information within its own control, there is no need

to breach the anonymity of the defendants. Bruno v. Stillman, 633

F.2d 583, 597 (1st Cir. 1980); Southwell v. Southern Poverty Law

Center, 949 F. Supp. 1303, 1311 (W.D. Mich. 1996). The requirement

that there be sufficient evidence to prevail against the speaker to

overcome the interest in anonymity is part and parcel of the

requirement that disclosure be “necessary” to the prosecution of

the case, and that identification “goes to the heart” of the

plaintiff’s case. If the case can be dismissed on factual grounds

that do not require identification of the anonymous speaker, it can

scarcely be said that such identification is “necessary.”

The extent of the proof that a proponent of compelled

disclosure of the identity should be required to offer may vary

depending on the element of the claim that is in question. On many

issues in suits for tortious speech, several elements of the

-28-
plaintiff’s claim will be based on evidence to which the plaintiff

is likely to have easy access, even access that is superior to the

defendant. For example, the plaintiff is likely to have ample

means of proving that a statement is false. Thus, it is ordinarily

proper to require a plaintiff to present proof of this elements of

its claims as a condition of obtaining or enforcing a subpoena for

the identification of a Doe defendant. Plaintiff might also be

able to produce evidence of context (for example, other accusa-

tions) that makes it reasonable to infer that “Gahill” is, in fact,

a sly statement about Cahill’s sexual orientation.

The same is true with respect to the proof of damages. Courts

have traditionally required such proof in some cases, and a

plaintiff should have ample means of proving its damages or other

harm without need of discovery from the defendant. When a

defamation action is filed over statements which, like anonymous

internet postings, have less potential for damage – because they

are less premeditated, or less likely to be perceived as true –

courts have traditionally required a higher standard of proof. For

example, slander, except in the case of slander per se, requires

proof of economic harm. Spence v. Funk, 396 A.2d 967 (Del. 1978);

Restatement 2d Torts § 575.

It is worth noting that, although a posting on the Internet is

"written," the notes to the Restatement point out that "in modern

times, with the discovery of new methods of communication, many

courts have condemned the distinction [between written and

-29-
non-written communication] as harsh and unjust." Indeed, in Spence

v. Funk, this Court specifically acknowledged that the traditional

rationales that underlie the distinction may not apply in the case

of new media. 396 A.2d at 970, fn. 2. Here, the distinction

between written and spoken defamation serves its purported purpose

poorly: anonymous internet communications are typically spontane-

ous, and readers of internet communications typically understand

them to be so. Although not the same, the similarities between

slander and anonymous internet posting support extending the

requirement of proof of economic harm to this context.

The court below declined to follow Dendrite by requiring the

presentation of evidence because it was worried that the rule was

onerous for plaintiffs to meet. No evidence supports this concern.

Most of the cases cited in Part II above were ones in which courts

reviewed evidence as part of their analyses, and nevertheless found

sufficient evidence and enforced the subpoena. In Dendrite itself

two Doe defendants were identified. Similarly, in Immunomedics v.

Doe, 342 N.J.Super. 160, 775 A.2d 773 (2001), a companion case to

Dendrite, enforcement of the subpoena was affirmed.

E. Balance the Equities.

Even after the Court has satisfied itself that the speaker has

made an actionable statement,

the final factor to consider in balancing the need for


confidentiality versus discovery is the strength of the
movant's case . . .. If the case is weak, then little
purpose will be served by allowing such discovery, yet
great harm will be done by revelation of privileged
information. In fact, there is a danger in such a case

-30-
that it was brought just to obtain the names . . ... On
the other hand, if a case is strong and the information
sought goes to the heart of it and is not available from
other sources, then the balance may swing in favor of
discovery if the harm from such discovery is not too
severe.

Missouri ex rel. Classic III v. Ely, 954 S.W.2d 650, 659


(Mo. App. 1997).

Just as the Missouri Court of Appeals approved such balancing in a

reporters’ source disclosure case, Dendrite called for individual-

ized balancing when a plaintiff seeks to compel identification of

an anonymous Internet speaker:

assuming the court concludes that the plaintiff has


presented a prima facie cause of action, the court must
balance the defendant's First Amendment right of anony-
mous free speech against the strength of the prima facie
case presented and the necessity for the disclosure of
the anonymous defendant's identity to allow the plaintiff
to properly proceed.

The application of these procedures and standards must be


undertaken and analyzed on a case-by-case basis. The
guiding principle is a result based on a meaningful
analysis and a proper balancing of the equities and
rights at issue.

342 N.J. Super. at 141-142, 775 A.2d at 760-761.

The adoption of a standard comparable to the test for

evaluating a request for a preliminary injunction – considering the

likelihood of success and balancing the equities – is particularly

appropriate because an order of disclosure is an injunction, and

denial of a motion to identify the defendant does not compel

dismissal of the complaint, but only defers its ultimate disposi-

tion. Apart from the fact that, under New York Times, “[t]he First

Amendment requires that we protect some falsehood in order to

-31-
protect speech that matters,” Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 341

(1974), the issue at this stage of the case is not whether the

action should be dismissed or judgment granted rejecting the tort

claims in the complaint, but simply whether a sufficient showing

has been made to overcome the right to speak anonymously.

Denial of a motion to enforce a subpoena identifying the

defendant does not terminate the litigation, and hence is not

comparable to motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment.

At the very least, plaintiffs retain the opportunity to renew their

motion after submitting more evidence. In this case, for example,

it should be a simple matter for Cahill to show that he is just as

mentally acute as he ever was, and that he is single-mindedly

heterosexual, assuming that these facts are true.

In contrast, a refusal to quash a subpoena for the name of an

anonymous speaker causes irreparable injury, because once a speaker

loses her anonymity, she can never get it back. And it is settled

law that any violation of an individual speaker’s First Amendment

rights constitutes irreparable injury. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S.

347, 373-374 (1976). Indeed, the injury is magnified where the

speaker faces the threat of economic or other retaliation. If, for

example, the person whom the plaintiff seeks to identify is

employed by someone over whom the plaintiff exercises influence or

control, the defendant could lose a great deal from identification,

even if the plaintiff has a wholly frivolous lawsuit.

Moreover, the nature of the plaintiff and of Doe 1's criti-

-32-
cisms weighs heavily against enforcement of the subpoena. Cahill

is a public official trying to identify a constituent who criti-

cized his conduct in office. By holding elective office, Cahill

voluntarily made his conduct a fair subject for comment, even

robust and unkind comment; and the comments for which Doe 1 has

been sued are core political speech, for which the protection of

the First Amendment is at its apogee.

On the other side of the balance, the Court should consider

the strength of the plaintiffs’ case and their interest in

redeeming Cahill’s reputation. In this regard, the Court can

consider not only the strength of the plaintiffs’ evidence but also

the nature of the allegations and their propensity to case damage

to important interests. In a case such as Biomatrix v. Costanzo,

Docket No. BER-L-670-00 (N.J. Super., Bergen Cy.), where the

anonymous poster alleged that the head of a biotech company was a

doctor who had collaborated with the Nazis in their heinous medical

experiments, or Hvide v. Doe, Case No. 99-22831 CA01 (Fla. Cir. Ct,

11th Judicial Cir., Dade Cy.), where the defendant claimed that the

head of the company was guilty of embezzling corporate funds and

the plaintiff lost his job as a result of the claims, or

HealthSouth Corp. v. Krum, Case No. 98-2812 (Pa. Ct. C.P. 1998),

where the poster claimed that he was having an affair with the

CEO’s wife, a court will have little difficulty in recognizing a

real defamation case and weighing the plaintiff’s interest in

disclosure quite heavily.

-33-
In this case, even if the Court passed beyond the third prong

of the test, by holding that Doe 1's words are capable of a

defamatory meaning, they are barely so. It is hard to imagine

plaintiffs carrying this case to judgment and obtaining a

substantial award of damages. The relief of “outing” his critic

would likely be the only relief Cahill obtained in this case.

Moreover, if this Court holds that the rhetoric and name

misspelling at issue here suffice to enforce the subpoena, the

ruling will send a message that Delaware citizens can never

preserve their anonymity when they criticize public officials.

-34-
IV. Dendrite’s Flexible Standard Discourages Frivolous
Lawsuits While Allowing Genuine Cases to Proceed.

The main advantage of the Dendrite test is its flexibility.

The test seeks to balance the relative interests of the plaintiff

who claims that her reputation has been unfairly besmirched against

the interest in anonymity of the Internet speaker who claims to

have done no wrong, and provides for a preliminary determination

based on a case-by-case, individualized assessment of the equities.

It avoids creating a false dichotomy between protection for

anonymity and the right of tort victims to be compensated for their

losses. It ensures that online speakers who make wild and

outrageous statements about public figures or private individuals

or companies will not be immune from identification and from being

brought to justice, while ensuring at the same time that persons

with legitimate reasons for speaking anonymously while making

measured criticisms will be allowed to maintain the secrecy of

their identity as the First Amendment allows.

The Dendrite test also has the advantage of discouraging

unnecessary lawsuits. In the first few years of the Internet,

hundreds or even thousands of lawsuits were filed to identify

online speakers, and the enforcement of subpoenas in those cases

was almost automatic. Consequently, many lawyers advised their

clients to bring such cases without being serious about pursuing a

defamation claim to judgment, on the assumption that a plaintiff

could compel the disclosure of its critics simply for the price of

filing a complaint. ISP’s reported staggering statistics about the

-35-
number of subpoenas they have received – AOL’s amicus brief in

Melvin reported the receipt of 475 subpoenas in a single fiscal

year, and Yahoo! told one judge at a hearing in California Superior

Court that it had received “thousands” of such subpoenas.

Although we have no firm numbers, amici believe that the

adoption of strict legal and evidentiary standards for defendant

identification in Delaware, like those adopted by lower courts in

other states, will encourage would-be plaintiffs and their counsel

to stop and think before they sue, and to ensure that litigation is

undertaken for legitimate ends and not just to chill speech. At

the same time, those standards have not stood in the way of

identifying those who face legitimate libel and other claims.

The Maine Supreme Court did not reach the First Amendment

issue because it had not been presented below, Fitch v. Doe, 869

A.2d 722 (2005), and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, although

recognizing the serious First Amendment implications of a

disclosure order, remanded for consideration of whether evidence

should be required on a particular issue. Melvin v. Doe, 575 Pa.

264, 836 A.2d 42 (2003). This case could be the first in which a

state Supreme Court squarely decides the proper procedures and

standards to be employed when deciding whether a Doe defendant

should be identified. We urge the Court to preserve this balance

by adopting the Dendrite test that balances the interests of

defamation plaintiffs to vindicate their rights in meritorious

cases against the right of Internet speaker defendants to maintain

-36-
their anonymity when their speech is not actionable.

CONCLUSION

The order enforcing the subpoena should be reversed.

Respectfully submitted,

Paul Alan Levy


Allison M. Zieve

Public Citizen Litigation Group


1600 - 20th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 588-1000

ROSENTHAL MONHAIT GROSS & GODDESS, P.A.


By:

Norman M. Monhait (DSBA No. 1040)


919 Market Street, Suite 1401
Citizens Bank Center
P.O. Box 1070
Wilmington, Delaware 19899-1070
(302) 656-4433

Lawrence A. Hamermesh (DSBA No. 474)

Widener University School of Law


4601 Concord Pike
Wilmington, DE 19803
(302) 477-2132

Attorneys for Amici Curiae


August 1, 2005

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